The Springboks will face yet another test of their aerial and kicking abilities in an important clash with the All Blacks in Wellington, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Boks didn’t have everything their own way in the Test against the Wallabies at Ellis Park. The visitors’ kicking game was on point and they found a lot of space behind the back-three combination of Warrick Gelant, Sbu Nkosi and Makazole Mapimpi.
Afterwards, Rassie Erasmus admitted that the Boks had lost the territorial battle and the Wallabies had beaten his side in the air. It was a concerning admission, even though several first-choice Bok players didn’t feature in that contest.
The All Blacks would have noted that vulnerability, and that the Boks have struggled in this area since the 2015 World Cup.
After the Boks lost to the All Blacks in the semi-final of that tournament, then coach Heyneke Meyer went out of his way to highlight the All Blacks’ strength in this area as well as the Boks’ relatively inferior kicking and aerial skills.
Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber – who has a mandate to upskill the players’ aerial skills as well as their defence – have worked hard to develop the Boks in these areas over the past 18 months. The big question is whether they have come far enough in this relatively short space of time.
We will find out this Saturday, when the Boks face the best exponents of the kick-chase in world rugby.
Coach Steve Hansen has made an interesting call to start Richie Mo’unga at No 10 and Beauden Barrett at No 15. These selections will give the All Blacks a number of attacking and kicking options over the course of the 80 minutes.
Mo’unga was the standout flyhalf over the course of the recent Vodacom Super Rugby tournament. He was a constant threat with ball in hand – both as a runner and distributor – and wasn’t afraid to use the boot to create attacking opportunities.
Barrett kicked a lot more in his role with the Hurricanes. At Test level, we’ve see the versatile player using the boot to find his wings with a kick-pass or to fracture the opposition defence with a well-executed high bomb.
The All Blacks go into this game with some excellent kick-chasers. Rieko Ioane will be expected to beat shorter players like Cheslin Kolbe and Mapimpi to the high ball. Ben Smith, playing on the wing this Saturday, is one of the world’s best players in the air.
Can the Boks beat the All Blacks in the air this Saturday? Yes and no.
With regard to the latter, the Boks still have some way to go before their kicking game and aerial skills can compare with those of the All Blacks. If the All Blacks are on the front foot at the Cake Tin, and if they manage to find space behind the back three or to create an aerial contest, the Boks will be in trouble.
On the other hand, Mo’unga and Barrett have looked susceptible when they’ve been rushed for time and space. If the Bok pack fires – as it did in Wellington last year – and the backline shuts down the All Blacks’ chief decision-makers, the hosts may battle to impose themselves in the air.
The back-row battle is going to be key. Duane Vermeulen hasn’t played against the All Blacks since the 2015 World Cup semi-final, and will be determined to prove a point regarding his value at the gainline and breakdowns. Pieter-Steph du Toit put in a big shift against Australia last week, and it will be interesting to see when Erasmus introduces Francois Louw from the bench – and indeed whether Louw is deployed at No 6, 7 or 8.
Kwagga Smith has proved an explosive player on attack and a prolific ball-stealer on defence. It remains to be seen whether he can replicate his Super Rugby exploits on the Test stage, though.
Hansen has opted to give Shannon Frizell and Matt Todd an opportunity in the All Blacks back row. The Boks would do well to nullify Frizell’s physicality and to ensure that Todd doesn’t succeed in disrupting the breakdown.
We saw what the Boks are capable of in Wellington and Pretoria last year. The first half of the second match witnessed an especially impressive tactical performance – although the Boks didn’t convert that territorial and physical dominance into nearly enough points.
If the Boks do get on the front foot, expect to see Handré Pollard and Damian de Allende – and Frans Steyn, later in the game – heading down Mo’unga’s channel. While he enjoyed a great season for the Crusaders in most respects, Mo’unga missed a lot of tackles.
A win in Wellington would do wonders for the Boks’ confidence just two months out from the World Cup. It will give them even more reason to believe that they can beat the All Blacks in the Pool B opener in Yokohama. A big loss, on the other hand, would prove a big setback.
It’s vital that the Boks get it right at the Cake Tin and that they push the No 1-ranked side close.
All Blacks – 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Dalton Papali’i, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 George Bridge.
Springboks – 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 Lukhanyo Am, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Makazole Mapimpi, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Duane Vermeulen (c), 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Tendai Mtawarira, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 RG Snyman, 20 Francois Louw, 21 Herschel Jantjies, 22 Frans Steyn, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images